Rawhide romance: ‘Brokeback Mountain’ portrays forbidden love and broken hearts

There has been considerable buzz over Director Ang Lee’s new film “Brokeback Mountain” (Focus Features) – but not just critical acclaim. The film portrays gay cowboys. Yet Lee (known for beauties such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) doesn’t seem fazed by his subject matter, nor surprised by the attention it’s received, simply noting that “Brokeback Mountain” “is a great American love story.”

Lee’s dedication to creating a classic romance is apparent in every fiber of the carefully crafted film. With lyrical grace, “Brokeback Mountain” chronicles the tribulations of ranchers Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), both high school dropouts, whose lives become forever intertwined during a summer spent herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain in 1963.

Set against a backdrop of endless Wyoming sky, the film follows the stoic cowboys, who become gripped in a close friendship – and soon, an urgent love affair. Resigned to the cold reality that their relationship is socially unacceptable, Ennis and Jack part ways at the end of the summer, but manage to reunite ecstatically at various points throughout the following 20 years, their plans sometimes thwarted by the responsibilities of marriage and children. Finally, the harsh injustice of tragedy (which I won’t spoil) brings the two men’s profound love into sharp – and achingly bittersweet – focus.

Though Ennis and Jack’s sexuality confounds their desire to be together (at least publicly), “Brokeback Mountain” is not a film about gay people. It is a film about being in love. It’s about that universal longing for someone to share life’s joys and heartaches, to grow old with, and, in this case, to sit with and watch the last embers of the fiery Montana sunrise undulate over the blue-gray mountaintops. It’s Pyramus and Thisbe, Tristan and Ysolde, Allie Hamilton and Noah Calhoun of “The Notebook.” It’s weak knees, sweaty palms, fluttering heartbeats and, sometimes, the sting of regret. As long as we humans (of any sexual orientation) have loved, we have been telling this story.

Performances are subtly passionate – a notable achievement given the minimalist script. Ennis, a rugged, silent type of the old school of cowboy-ness, never says very much, but Ledger funnels Ennis’ pent-up emotion into the choked sobs of things his character can’t articulate. Gyllenhaal is vibrant as the optimistic Jack, and Michele Williams’ Alma Del Mar garners sympathy as Ennis’ long-suffering wife.

The only apparent pitfall of retelling such a sparsely elegant love story (the movie was adapted from a mere 12-page short story by writer Annie Proulx) is that there are long stretches during which nothing really happens. We are treated, for example, to gorgeous five-minute pans of lush Montana mountainside, but the attention to scenery feels, at times, like filler between carefully doled out plot developments.

Don’t go to “Brokeback Mountain” expecting an overt political statement about being gay, but rather, a slowly revealed, beautifully shot and precisely acted love story. Despite its languid pace, in “Brokeback Mountain,” we see again, as we have in countless love stories before it, that what matters is not who we love, but that we allow ourselves to love at all. n

“Brokeback Mountain” will be in theaters nationwide Dec. 7.

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